Voyou Désœuvré

Jimmy McNulty pursues policework for the enjoyment it gives him to fuck over his old boss. Some time ago Adam wrote a fine piece about ethics in House, arguing that House’s apparently unethical behavior—his devotion to solving the intellectual puzzle of illness at the expense of obeying hospital rules or caring about the wellbeing of patients—is in fact the ethical attitude par excellence. Adam explains:  “Only by practicing medicine for its own sake and not for the people, and directly enjoying its inherent satisfactions, can he ever hope to solve the hopelessly complicated cases that he is faced with.” You could derive a couple of ethical theories from this. Focussing on the part about “practicing medicine for its own sake” might lead you to something like Badiou’s claim in Ethics, that there is no such thing as ethics in general, but only the ethics of a particular situation, such that the only possible “medical ethics” is simply to practice medicine as well as possible.

The other position here focuses on House’s enjoyment; House’s ethics lie in embracing his enjoyment, rather than attempting to find some moralistic justification for his actions. Adam’s description of House enjoying medicine’s “inherent satisfactions” kind of aligns this with the Badiouian theory in that the ethical act depends on the specifics of the medical situation. But I think House would get the same enjoyment from some other intellectual pursuit; the medicine is at bottom extrinsic to House’s enjoyment. It would be interesting to consider the ethical implications of a character whose pursuit of an apparently praiseworthy pursuit hinges on an enjoyment that is extrinsic to, even at odds with, the apparent norms of that pursuit.

The Wire‘s Jimmy McNulty is just such a character. McNulty’s most prominent characteristic is his willingness to go uo against the Baltimore Police Department’s chain of command in order to pursue a case; but it’s not clear this is ever motivated merely by a desire to solve crimes. At the end of the first season, McNulty claims his pursuit of Barksdale was motivated by a desire to prove himself right; the beginning of the second season provides an even better example. In the first couple of episodes, McNulty spends a great deal of time and effort assembling information that ensures that murder investigations are opened into the deaths of 14 unknown women, something which he does, and with great pleasure, solely to fuck over his old commander, Major Rawls of the homicide unit, who will know have to deal with the statistical fallout of 14 unsolvable cases. What’s interesting here is that McNulty, employing the bureaucratic obstructions of the police department in order to pursue a personal vendetta, sets in motion a train of events that leads to these women being identified, and legal procedings against drug and human traffickers (the other impetus, it occours to me, is Major Valcheck’s even more petty vendetta against union boss Frank Sobotka).

(Adam also talks about House‘s medical utopia, in which doctors, rather than insurance companies, make decisions about treatment. I wonder how much this TV image—not confined to House—leads people to accept those absurd ads currently on TV talking about Obama’s terrifying plan to introduce bureaucrats into the US health care system. Of course, the ads’ fantasy healthcare system in which medical decisions are made by doctors actually exists, but it’s not in the US, it’s in the UK, and doubtless every other country with socialized medicine.)


  1. Ian Mathers, 7:35 am, July 9, 2009

    Ooh, I’d missed that (fantastic) piece on House, thanks for linking it. Great post here, too.

  2. Owen, 5:22 am, July 10, 2009

    Great post. Although a key difference is that the appalling Valcheck is horrified when he realises the investigation is about something other than fucking up Frank Subotka. After the process is set in motion McNulty is clearly interested in pursuing its logic, while Valcheck wants it stopped when it leaves the realm of pettiness…

  3. Jeffrey Rubard, 1:37 pm, July 13, 2009

    1) Consider yourself shamed, and lucky not to be lamed.
    2) *House*, *House*, *House* is a big pile of shit about how American medicine works: really, really, really well, like a “string theory of the body” that fixes problems it started in the first place through continual biological innovation. Like German private insurance, US health care is *nicht f

  4. voyou, 10:52 pm, July 13, 2009

    Yeah, Owen, the whole story wouldn’t work if McNulty didn’t also (pathologically) enjoy the police work in itself, but I thought it was interesting that, at least for a short while, the same actions he shows as a dedicated detective could also be motivated by petty malice. I guess the final season is perhaps a flip side of this, with the creation of a fake case, and thus a supposed justification within the logic of police work, for him to continue the investigation he enjoys.

    Good point, Jeff. It hadn’t occoured to me that the infinite repetition of increasingly complicated failed cure attempts that forms the standard plot of a house episode mirrors the pathology of the American health system.

  5. Odette Amour, 9:16 am, July 17, 2009

    all the things in the serial are about the American health system! i just can w8 for the new series … the last episode left us all wondering

  6. shag carpet bomb, 3:59 am, July 23, 2009

    I haven’t seen much of either program, nor have I kept on my readings in ethics, but the House storyline is the same forumulaic storyline peddled by u.s. t.v. dramas and films for decades, really. Our saviour is the individual, our enemy are social institutions. The bad guys are people who uphold the institution, the good guys are the ones who buck the system. The good guy can never have a family or even a wife or girlfriend: she must always be killed, usually because of something the bad guy did in order to perform his Lone Ranger routine.

    He’s continually an outsider, never attached to family (because they will inevitably die from their association with him). He’s never *in* society, but portrayed as outside of it. The way to save the system is to swoop in, breaking its rules in just the right way, not really caring about the people you’re saving so much as dedicated to some overarching Principle (or, in the case of comic book heroes, driven by repetition).

    OK> so now I’ll go read this and watch the shows, and comment more intellgiently. :)

Post a comment